NEW HAVEN — Once upon a time, breakfast was the most important meal of the day. For many, that is not so true anymore.
But the Beeman Elementary School is doing its best to bring breakfast back — and is getting its students excited about hands-on work in the kitchen to boot.
Under the guidance of Beeman’s new food service program director, Christa Gowen, the New Haven school has launched an impressive array of programs in the last year that stress the importance of eating healthy and delicious foods — many of which can be grown and harvested from right here in Addison County.
“I’m introducing the kids to things that they really haven’t heard of before,” said Gowen. “We’ve had quinoa and red cabbage. They eat Brussels sprouts. We’ve had kale chips that they beg me for.”
Gowen’s efforts to get students involved in food choices play out in more ways than menu options. The launch of the Green Kitchen Project at Beeman, wherein students help serve food and sort out trash, recycling and compost, has been a great success. Students choose to sign up for a week of volunteering in the Beeman lunchroom; it has proven to be a popular option for the community service requirement that students in the older grades at Beeman have to fulfill.
“I’ve been seeing people who I wouldn’t think would want to sign up,” said fifth-grade volunteer Grace Hobbs. “They see how much fun people have.
“Though it may look like a gross job, people are signing up.”
Beeman Student Services Coordinator Julie Olson said the job has gotten a lot less “gross” since students and teachers began learning the proper way to sort garbage.
“(The student volunteers) originally did a lot of dumpster diving because they were trying to save things that should be recycled or put into the compost,” Olson said. “Not so much anymore.”
Olson credits Gowen, who began working at Beeman at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, with amping up the school’s focus on making healthy, deliberate food choices.
“Her charge, and she’ll tell you this, is making sure that kids can eat … We don’t call her a lunch lady — she is clearly a chef,” Olson said.
Gowen’s meals are made from whole, unprocessed ingredients. She tends to serve one main dish, two vegetable (a “kid-friendly” one like potato wedges or corn on the cob, paired with a more unusual option like pureed squash or Brussels sprouts), fresh fruit and a dessert. Though standard lunchtime fare like chicken tenders are still on the menu, Gowen makes those options from scratch.
“I don’t serve anything I wouldn’t eat, and I don’t serve anything that I wouldn’t be proud that I made,” Gowen said. “And I have very high food standards so I hope that translates (into the meals).”
The food scraps from the Beeman lunchroom are given to local chickens, whose owners come by the school to pick up the discarded leftovers. Local growers also donate excess crops, and some have even offered to start planting for the school.
The county’s agricultural heritage is not lost on the students. Another component of Beeman students’ food education is wrestling with the seemingly contradictory facts that there is still hunger in Addison County, though area farmers produce an abundance of healthy produce and dairy products.
“It’s so great because (kids) don’t get it. They’re like, ‘well, there’s the food and there’s the hungry people…duh, we have to feed the hungry people,’” Gowen laughed.
That line of thought, combined with the knowledge that kids generally do not grow up around a strong breakfast culture, inspired Gowen to launch another new food program. Breakfast at Best is a once-a-month community breakfast that will, she hopes, begin to foster a culture of sitting down and eating a healthy meal instead of eating on the go in the morning.
“She knows (some) kids aren’t eating breakfast,” Olson explained.
Of Beeman’s student population of just over 100, Gowen estimates that only 20 currently come to free breakfast at school. She hopes that Breakfast at Best will encourage others to come. She believes that first meal of the day can make or break a student’s morning learning experience.
“I’ve been listening to Shumlin keep saying how his new priority is education,” Gowen said. “My priority is also education, and they can’t learn if they don’t eat. If you want them to learn well, they have to eat well.”
Gowen stressed that a big part of the food culture she is trying to foster at Beeman is an understanding that good, healthy food is always available. If kids are hungry in the middle of lessons, Gowen has a healthy snack always on hand in the cafeteria.
“They know that it’s here, and it’s something they can rely on.”
She hopes community breakfasts will one day be a daily event (the school currently forgoes a mid-morning snack for a first-thing-in-the-morning snack). In the meantime, everyone at Beeman continues to enjoy Gowen’s healthy lunches.
“She has made all of us aware, not just the children but also the staff, how powerful and vibrant and tasty healthy food can be,” Olson said.